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Both the expressions 探望 and 看 are, in an appropriate context, translated as "to visit". I haven't been able to figure out the difference between the two. When does one use 探望, when does one use 看?

  • 探望 means that the person you are visiting is in a bad situation; 看 is more general. For instance, 'visiting a doctor' is always 看医生 and never 探望医生; 'visiting a patient in the hospital' is usually 探望病人. – user58955 Aug 31 '14 at 15:15
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「探望」has a tendency to describe visits which "aims to make somebody happy or feel better", like visiting a relative/close friend whom you haven't visited for quite a while (not required), or visiting somebody in a bad situation (e.g. injured/ill). In this case, both「探望」and「看」can be used.

In most other cases, using「看」may be more appropriate, for example: to visit a doctor (due to sickness) (as mentioned by @user58955) (note, it can be correct to say「探望醫生」when you are visiting a doctor to thank one for healing you, for example), to visit an exhibition. There might be exceptions but I can't think of any now.

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The words used are with fundamental differences: 看 to look; to take a look; out of all kinds of reasons; 望 to focus on watching usually with expectation and intention; 探 to exploit; to scout. 探望 is much stronger and emphasizing with purpose.

  • These two terms are highly contextual. Defining them in a vacuum would lead to misunderstanding and misuse. Just the word 探 itself has multifarious meanings and usages, (from spying to explore to visit) That is why you need 望, (watch, view, gaze) to narrow it down to "to visit", "to call upon", and the context would further narrow it down to the purpose for the visit. – Wayne Cheah Sep 20 '20 at 3:08
  • Exactly my confusion about teaching new word (in my other posts): just explain the meaning used in the context, or, explain as many as possible and "in this case, it means ... here". I use the first method. My material for students usually includes many old word: 的(2), 会(2), 打(3) all because it's different meaning (from previous encounter) in the context now. – James Liu 刘老师 Sep 20 '20 at 3:21

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